The fortnight when we came close to oblivion

Review: Vivien Horler

Abyss – the Cuban missile crisis 1962, by Max Hastings (William Collins)

Over the past 60 years I’ve had a pretty good life. I went to university, obtained two degrees, married, had a child – and now have two grandsons, have travelled, and held down a good job. My pension enables me to live without financial worry.

I have been fortunate, but then, so have we all. Because when I was 10 years old, the world came within a whisker of being blasted to smithereens.

This was at the height of the Cold War, and USSR premier Nikita Kruschev decided to move nuclear missiles to Cuba, aimed at the heart of the United States. He knew very well that US President John Kennedy was going to react to this provocation, but he didn’t care.

Cuba was governed by the gung-ho Fidel Castro, who had fought a guerilla war to overthrow West-leaning dictator Fulgencio Batista and become president. Castro was aided and abetted by his friend Che Guevara, who was not at all the good guy we students thought he was in the 60s and 70s.

Castro, who was something of a loose cannon (pun intended), was hated by many Cuban-Americans and distrusted by the US government. In April 1961, the CIA launched the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, led by Cuban exiles, in a bid to topple Castro.

It was a dismal failure, and now Castro, never before this a true Communist, turned to the Soviet Union for military and other support, which suited Kruschev very well.

The stage was set. A year later Kruschev came up with the idea of deploying nuclear missiles to Cuba, and in July of that year the first shipment weapons and personnel set sail. By the beginning of October there were 43 000 Soviet personnel on the island.

What’s more, the US had no idea of the existence of nuclear-tipped Luna short-range weapons and FKR-1 cruise missiles on the island, nor that local commanders had been ordered to use them in the event of an American invasion.

It was not until mid-October that a USAF U-2 reconnaissance flight over Cuba spotted the missile sites and photographed them.

On the morning of Tuesday October 16 Mac Bundy, the national security adviser, went into Kennedy’s bedroom, where he was reading the papers, and reported the US had pictures of offensive Russian missiles in Cuba.

Kennedy had always made it clear he would not tolerate the presence of missiles so close to the US, and the Soviets had promised they would not do so.

Kennedy’s first reaction was to say to Bundy: “We’re probably going to have bomb them.”

Kennedy set up a crisis committee of 14 key individuals which included his brother Robert Kennedy, Bundy, various bellicose military leaders including the chairman of the joint chiefs General Maxwell Taylor, the defence secretary Robert McNamara and vice president Lyndon Johnson.

For the next 13 days this group of men met daily, debated the options, wrung their hands, and eventually came up with a plan. And we know who said what because, unbeknown to them at the time, Kennedy had ensured that all the discussions were recorded.

Among their concerns was that if the US reacted, what was to stop the Soviets seizing control of West Berlin, isolated as it was from the rest of West Germany?

Early on in the discussions, when the possibility of an exchange of nuclear missiles was discussed, Kennedy said: “Now the question really is to what action we take which lessens the chances of a nuclear exchange, which obviously is the final failure.”

Well after the crisis was over, Robert Kennedy wrote an account of those tense days: “I thought, as I listened, of the many times that I had heard the military take positions which, if wrong, had the advantage that no one would be around at the end to know.”

What was also terrifying was the fact of far fewer controls then than exist today. Mistakes could happen, people on the ground – and under the sea – could make unilateral decisions that could have seen the firing of a nuclear missile.

Eventually the Americans came up with a pan: they would blockade Cuba to prevent the arrival of any further missiles, while giving an undertaking not to invade Cuba provided the missiles were removed. Ships carrying food and fuel to the island would be allowed to pass, but the US navy would board and inspect any carriers they suspected of carrying armaments.

By this time a channel of communication had been opened between Kennedy and Kruschev, but it was painfully slow. Not only of course was this before email, it was also before the existence of the famous hotline between the White House and the Kremlin. Messages would be sent to the USSR embassy in Washington, translated, encrypted and sent by telegraph, with answers coming back in the same laborious way. In the meantime anything could have happened.

And it did. During the entire crisis the US was still sending high-altitude reconnaissance flights over Cuba, and on Saturday October 27, at the height of the tension, one was shot down, killing pilot Major Rudolf Anderson.

Thankfully for all of us, wisdom and restraint – notably Kennedy’s – eventually prevailed, and we’re all still here.

Many lessons were learnt and safeguards introduced on both sides to ensure that nuclear war never broke out by mistake.

But now we have another murderous leader in the Kremlin, for whom wisdom and restraint are clearly not a priority, and we appear closer to the events of October 1962 than at any period since then.

This is a fascinating look at the 13 days in 1962 when we came close to annihilation. Author Max Hastings sets the scene in exhaustive detail so that the action doesn’t start until halfway in. But once you’ve got the background, it makes for a nail-biting read, and it’s worth the effort, especially now.

*This book appears in Exclusive Books’ Christmas catalogue.


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